What is 'engagement'? What is a Ring?

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The Encarta World Dictionary defines ‘engagement’ as “an agreement to get married.” It has been accepted within Western society that in order for two people to be considered ‘engaged’ that there must be a ring involved along with a formal proposal. But according to the aforementioned definition, there is nothing in there that states that an engagement ring or even a formal proposal of marriage is necessary. So how did the concept of an engagement ring become so deeply engrained into our common perception of the construct of marriage?

Originally, as early as the 13thcentury, when couples engaged to marry, the groom-to-be would present his future bride with a betrothal gift, sometimes a betrothal ring or some type of jewelry or, for those that shunned the idea of receiving jewelry, a sewing thimble was given instead. Before the end of the 19thcentury, thimbles and other kinds of betrothal gifts were given. It wasn’t until the 19thcentury that engagement rings were standardized as the ‘official’ betrothal gift in the West. And even then, diamond engagement rings remained uncommon up until the 1930s. The first well-documented use of a diamond engagement ring was in 1477 in the Viennese imperial court when the Archduke Maximilian of Austria was betrothed to Mary of Burgundy.

It took a while for diamond engagement rings to gain popularity in the West. The primary reason for this was the cost of the gem, since diamonds were expensive then (and now). Hollywood’s usage of diamond engagement rings in cinema around the Great Depression era helped start the diamond engagement ring trend in the Western world. But it wasn’t until 1948 when the company De Beers coined the phrase “A Diamond Is Forever” that the diamond engagement ring was truly established as the official symbol of love.

From that point on, other jewelry companies caught on and started using the slogan, manufacturing such items as the “Forever Diamond” and other similar products. The use of diamonds was further popularized by the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” which was written by Jule Styne for Broadway. But “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is best known for its use in the 1953 film adaptation of the original 1949 stage musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which starred Marilyn Monroe, who performed the song.

In a traditional mindset, presenting a bride-to-be with a ring or any form of a betrothal gift was commonly perceived as the groom-to-be proving that he could afford to support and properly take care of his future wife and their future children. The gift itself was a symbol of the groom’s financial security and stability as well as a sign that he would always be able to provide for his family and fulfill his role as the ‘man of the house.’

However, in a more modern perspective, the concept of gifting an engagement ring is simply a profession of love and commitment. For centuries, the ring, or more accurately, a circle, is a symbol of eternity, because it is unending and unbroken. Because of this unique nature of a circle, it was deemed appropriate for use as a love symbol.

But now, it seems that the beautiful symbolism of the engagement ring has lost its true meaning. It seems to be a proof of worthiness to marry a woman. People make a mockery of small-sized diamonds on rings, determining that the depth of a man’s affection is based on the size of the stone he buys for his woman. The smaller the diamond, the less true the man’s love is and conversely, the larger the diamond, the truer the man’s love.

Since when did the size of a gem become a determinant of the depth of a person’s devotion? How did the ring become so degraded to the point where it is a competition of who has the bigger budget? When did worthiness ever become a factor? What unspoken rule was enacted that made it obligatory for a man to prove himself to his woman and buy her an expensive piece of jewelry in order to marry her? When did money become synonymous with love? Has the world actually managed to put a price tag on commitment?

Whatever happened to love being about love?

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